Tet 14

Warnke read the draft to Clifford at a meeting on March 1 attended by Wheeler and others, and it painted an unalluring picture of the situation. Since the Communists could match any increase in American troop strength, it said, the escalation suggested by Wheeler and West¬moreland promised “no early end to the conflict. ” Instead, the strategy would “entail substantial costs” in Vietnam and especially in the United States—where the subordination of economic and social ex¬penditures to military outlays “runs great risks of provoking a do¬mestic crisis of unprecedented proportions.” Moreover, a large influx of additional American soldiers would encourage the Saigon regime to believe that the United States “will continue to fight its war while it engages in backroom politics and permits widespread corruption.” Warnke therefore proposed that U.S. units in South Vietnam be pulled back to defending the populated areas along the coast. And he urged that the South Vietnamese army be trained and equipped as a more effective force. In an annex to the document, Warnke redefined the American commitment. “Our objective has been to guarantee the existence of a ‘free and independent South Vietnam.’ This is not an unlimited objective to be equated with that of the preservation of the United States.”
Warnke’s presentation naturally appalled Wheeler, and the joint chiefs rapidly responded with demands for vigorous action. West¬moreland again called for U.S. incursions into Laos, while Admiral Sharp advocated more intensive bombing of North Vietnam, asserting that toughness was “the only policy that the Communists under¬stood.” But their vagueness disturbed Clifford. One afternoon after the war, as we sat in his lavish Washington law office appropriately looking down on the White House, he recollected his attempts at the time to extract precise replies from Wheeler and his colleagues. “How long would it take to succeed in Vietnam? They didn’t know. How many more troops would it take? They couldn’t say. Were two hundred thousand the answer? They weren’t sure. Might they need more? Yes, they might need more. Could the enemy build up in exchange? Probably. So what was the plan to win the war? Well, the only plan was that attrition would wear out the Communists, and they would have had enough. Was there any indication that we’ve reached that point? No, there wasn’t.”
By early March, Clifford told me, he had quietly turned against the war—having concluded that “all we were going to do was waste our treasure and the lives of our men out there in the jungles.” From then on, he was convinced, America’s aim should be to curb its involvement in Vietnam and to disengage gradually. But the final verdict would rest with the president, and Clifford knew as a skilled political operator that he had to proceed prudently. He did not want to jolt Johnson. Nor could he afford to antagonize Wheeler and the joint chiefs of staff.
On March 4, after an exhausting weekend of polishing, Clifford sent his recommendations to the White House. They were far more cautious than Warnke’s original proposals. But despite his disappoint¬ment, Warnke understood that the process of reaching decisions was extremely complex. The report would set the agenda for an internal debate, stimulating the president to pose questions. Its real purpose, Warnke later explained, was to divert Johnson’s attention away from the specific issue of troop requests and “to get him to focus on the wider questions.”
Though it contained something for everyone, Clifford’s report tilted toward the moderates. It sought to placate the joint chiefs by favoring a call-up of the reserves to cope with “possible contingencies world¬wide,” but it spurned their appeal for a bigger U.S. combat role in Vietnam, stating bluntly that “there is no reason to believe” that the Communists could be beaten by “an additional two hundred thousand American troops, or double or triple that quantity.” Moreover, the document featured two proposals that had always been anathema to the military establishment: flatly ruling out the prospect of victory, it suggested that Westmoreland be directed not to try “either to destroy the enemy forces or to rout them completely”—implying that Amer¬ican units might instead be withdrawn to coastal enclaves; and it fur¬ther proposed that the South Vietnamese be warned in no uncertain terms that continued U.S. assistance would be predicated on a marked improvement in their performance. Thus, for the first time, the Saigon regime was to be put on notice that American patience was limited.
Clifford was more forthright in person at a cabinet meeting con¬vened by Johnson on the afternoon of March 4. Westmoreland’s re¬quest for additional men, he said, brought the administration to a “clearly-defined watershed.” Then, addressing the president with the forensic skill of the prominent lawyer he was, he made his argument.
Do you continue down the same road of more troops, more guns, more planes, more ships? Do you go on killing more Vietcong and more North Vietnamese? As we built up our forces, they built up theirs. The result is simply that we are fighting now at a higher level of intensity. . . . We are not sure that a conventional military victory, as commonly defined, can be achieved. . . . We seem to have a sinkhole. We put in more, they match it . . . more and more fighting, with more and more casualties on the U.S. side, and no end in sight. . . . The time has come to decide where we go from here. … If we in this room had to vote today on sending these two hundred thousand men, we could come out all over the lot. We would be split. But all of us wonder if we are really making progress toward our goal.
Johnson’s reaction was mixed. He considered Clifford to be unduly pessimistic and, as he recorded in his memoirs, preferred to listen to Westmoreland rather than to “many people in Washington, especially Pentagon civilians.” But, he conceded, he was sensitive to the “grow¬ing criticism” of the war coming “from the press and from vocal citizens. ” So he decided to defer a decision on Westmoreland’s appeal for more men. Nevertheless, his outlook began to shift. He had almost been ready to raise taxes, mobilize the reserves and pour fresh troops into Vietnam. Now, though he had not yet reversed himself com¬pletely, his mind was changing.

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